“A Bosom Friend” begins with Queequeg whittling away at the nose of his idol, Yojo, literally reshaping the object of his worship. The image foreshadows Ishmael’s struggle through the rest of the chapter to reconcile his positive feelings toward Queequeg with the views his Christian faith takes towards pagans. Ishmael uses many tools to determine his feelings about Queequeg, from phrenology to intuition. His negotiation is at least partially financial — Queequeg offers him silver and tobacco in exchange for friendship.* However, Ishmael’s struggle eventually comes down to a restructuring of his Christian values.
Ishmael decides that the golden rule trumps the Ten Commandments: what God would want, Ishmael believes, is for Ishmael to worship idols with Queequeg as a reciprocal gesture of human compassion. It’s a more than reasonable thought, but it’s also a thought I would expect to be somewhat radical in the age of missionary Christianity. Interestingly, allowing himself the desired friendship with Queequeg greatly eases Ishmael’s conscience, and allows him to reconcile his own moral compass with a Christian faith he wants to maintain. For half the silver of Judas, Ishmael performs half the betrayal, turning his back on the Christianity of his youth, but in the process elevating that outmoded religious law back into a position of being a higher truth for the modern age.
*My wife wrote an awesome paper in grad school about faith in Moby-Dick as a series of financial transactions. It has an especially awesome title: “A Joint Stock Company of Two: The Commerce of Faith in Moby-Dick.”
Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend
My Christian concern for you
Has melted, noble savage.
In you I see the world that Christ desired.
A wolfish, hollow courtesy;
My ship has run aground
On the shallow, rocky shelf of Heaven’s shores.
God bless your savage heart,
Without corruption, malediction,
Or the grand deceits that split our brotherhood.
To join your idolatry,
In faithful unity,
Should make God happier than sweeping you aside.
Here I am,
Half a Judas,
A bosom friend.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 14, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea January 1, 2009